Let’s be clear. This is not Grenfell. The word ‘tragedy’ may be all over the news, Twitter may be full of despair, but no architectural loss can compare with the deaths of seventy-two people. Nevertheless, the response to the latest devastating fire at Glasgow School of Art really is visceral and profound, just as it was four years ago when part of the building that included Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s world famous art nouveau library, first burned down.
The Mack, as the old section of the art school is known, is more than a building, more than an institution; it’s one of the cultural threads that runs through Glasgow, or at least through a wide slice of Glaswegian society. The School of Art is not just an art college, but a social hub, a music venue, an exhibition space, a weel-kent building of rare, international merit that all the citizens of the ‘dear green place’ can and do enjoy and take pride in. GSA has, quite genuinely, a unique and vital place in the soul of its city, and I say that as a graduate of its rival, Edinburgh College of Art.
My alma mater is a footnote in its own city, a place that many residents of the capital barely recognize. When I was there, artists graduated Edinburgh with a shrug but things always seemed a bit different at the other end of the M8. They had a soul that we did not; they had an identity and a purpose and that purpose was to be the best. As an Edinburgh student in the late 90s, I knew Glasgow was where it was at; I knew that Glasgow students were probably much better than us and that they were definitely much cooler and that they were the ones who would be snared by galleries, win prizes, establish successful pop bands.
The majority of Scotland’s most influential contemporary artists came through Glasgow, with the school producing a famous, first-class generation of painters in the 1980s, including Currie, Watt, Campbell, Wiszniewski and Howson, before coming to dominate the Turner Prize with its more recent graduates. In terms of contemporary art, GSA has shaped the discourse over the last three decades and continues to do so. It attracts the best students because it is the best.
All the restoration work conducted since the previous fire appears to have been lost. The dark, dark woodwork that had come to characterize the place was to be replaced by something much lighter, and a striking colour scheme, apparently much closer to Mackintosh’s original vision, was to be put in place. It would have been fascinating to see and reports on the work in progress were enthusiastic. Whether there will be the funds and capacity to go back to the drawing board and rebuild once more remains to be seen. What is not in doubt is that in Glasgow there will be the determination, the ambition and the sheer bloody mindedness necessary to see it through.